Honour and Shame

Reading the stories of women’s rights activists across the world in the 16 Days blog series has been an empowering experience. The experiences of violence, extra-judicial punishments and honour-based abuse taking place in countries such as Yemen, Iraq and Pakistan are humbling and give us an extra appreciation of the relative security and peace we have here in the United Kingdom. However,   we hear echoes of the climate of fear described in these blogs in the calls to our helpline from women and men living in towns and cities in this country.  Most of our callers are female, but a growing number are from men and boys. Some callers are too scared to say their names, using pseudonyms for weeks until they begin to trust us enough to tell us who and where they really are. Some speak in a whisper, calling from under their bedcovers or behind a locked bathroom door from a secret mobile phone they keep hidden from their family. 

Their circumstances vary.  Some callers have overheard that plane tickets have been booked for them to go overseas where they fear they will be forced into marriage, as the same thing has happened to older siblings and cousins. Some have already been married and are suffering beatings and rape at the hands of their “husbands”. Many have been told that if they ever try to leave or to defy the wishes of the family they will be hunted down, brought home and murdered. All callers, male and female, old and young have one thing in common; at some point, one way or the other they have been told that their needs, their well-being, their ambitions and sometimes even their lives are not as important as the family or community notion of “honour”, “respect”  “Izzat” or “sharaf”. Maintaining this so-called honour and avoiding “shame” is used as the justification for the fear and violence these callers live with. For females especially, the perceived loss of honour can sadly happen very easily.

We receive around 550 calls per month to the helpline. There is always a sharp increase in calls in the months leading up to the school and college summer holidays which is when many young people are taken overseas and forced into marriage. We also have an increase in calls around religious festivals and holidays such as Eid, Ramadan, Christmas and Diwali where women who have been disowned feel the isolation and the loss of family even more keenly than usual. At such times many say they need to speak to someone who understands that loss and the feelings of guilt and displacement that can come with it. 

A large part of the work we do on the helpline consists of offering emotional support to callers in this way. At other times we focus on dealing with immediate danger, safety planning and crisis intervention. We get calls  from frightened  victims who after being trapped for weeks or even months in the family home manage to get a hold of a phone when alone and call asking us to get them to safety. This will lead to several calls to agencies such as police, refuges and social services until the victim is safe. Then there are the calls from spouses who are brought from overseas and completely reliant on their husband and in-laws who at times subject them to years of abuse and keep them in a state of isolation and absolute dependency. Sometimes a perceptive GP or nursery-school worker may give our number and we will assist where we can.  However, we fear there are hundreds more people trapped like this.

It goes without saying that we would not be able to handle this volume of calls without our amazing team of volunteers who come in most days to give their time, expertise and language skills to supporting the helpline. Some of them are themselves survivors of forced marriage and honour-based abuse and share their experiences with the callers, assuring them there is light at the end of the tunnel, you do not have to marry someone just because this is what your mother and sisters did, you can survive disownment, and, crucially, you are not going against your religion if you do not go ahead with the marriage your parents have chosen for you.

The input and experience of survivors is priceless and this is where Karma Nirvana began. Our founder Jasvinder Sanghera narrowly escaped a forced marriage aged 15 after witnessing her older sisters being withdrawn from school and taken to India to marry strangers. Karma Nirvana was founded as a result partially of her experiences but more because of those of her sister, Rubina.  Rubina suffered physical and mental abuse in her marriage and sought help from a number of sources including her family and a community leader who variously told her that this was what marriage is like and that “a man is like a pan of milk on the stove. It is a woman’s job to stop it from boiling over.” In other words, it is your responsibility to make the marriage work. If there is abuse then it is your fault. Rubina eventually committed suicide by setting fire to herself in the marital home in Derby. This was a turning point in Jasvinder’s life and ultimately led to the beginning of Karma Nirvana. Now decades after Rubina’s death, have things improved for women in this situation? In some ways it has. There is now much more awareness about forced marriage and honour-based violence among the agencies which are there to support these victims and it is much less likely for such abuse to be dismissed as “cultural.”  However, the 500 plus calls to the helpline each month testify that people are still suffering and much more needs to be done.

Despite the sadness and pain of their experiences, the people who call us are not to be pitied.  The journalists who frequently visit our office sometimes ask the call-handlers, “It must be so hard hearing things like this? Isn’t it depressing?”  The answer to this is no. For the most part, calls are much more motivating than distressing. To hear a caller tell you she feels safe for the first time in years after getting into refuge, or someone who has been told that she will never amount to anyone without her family tell you that she has just passed her driving test is wonderful. As one of our volunteer said recently, “Every time I come in I know I am going to speak to the most inspiring people and this is what keeps me going.”


Judy B. is a a call handler at Karma Nirvana,  a UK-based Charity that supports victims and survivors of Forced Marriage and Honour Based Abuse.

This blog series is an initiative of the Stop Stoning Women Campaign hosted by WLUML - campaigning to bring an end to Stoning.